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Lex records celebrates a decade of hands-on management and artistic ventures
words & images Fabrice Bourgelle Pyres
Lex Records turns ten this year. After the label’s landmark anniversary show in London, featuring DOOM and Ghostface, we thought it only right to sit down and flick through the family album with Tom Brown, Lex’s founder.Shape of Broad Minds: Electric Blue
It’s a big turning point for anybody, the big ‘one zero’.
Double digits and all. Usually celebrated with a plethora of balloons, candles and cake, with soft smiles all round (followed by a slightly disappointing party bag, ending with two sheets of tissue paper stuck to the last piece of cake nobody wanted).
But if you’re a well-respected Indie label, you may also want to invite some hip-hop royalty to play to your 3000 guests. And possibly start thinking about baking a bigger cake.
The label itself is best known by many for being the house of artists like Danger Mouse (and his multiple collaborative projects), underground king DOOM, Jneiro Jarel (Dr Who Dat?) of Shape of Broad Minds and the likes of Doseone (Subtle), Boom Bip and his collaborative venture Neon Neon.
The credentials are clear at this point, but how do you go from being a young lad from Bradford lugging around kit for your older brother’s punk band to running a label?
Growing up around all different genres with a passion for music helps, and for Tom it eventually lead him to putting on nights.
“I got a meeting at a really crappy bar that nobody went to, called ‘Tin Pan Alley’ that was just near the uni,” he tells us. “I just lied to them and told them I had been promoting nights in Ibiza, because I saw the guy and thought that that what he might respond well to.”
Starting in Sheffield, Tom began with nights playing anything from 90’s rap to guitar-scene favorites like ‘Pavement’ and ‘My Bloody Valentine’. While the bar would pack out and Tom earned himself a reputation as a promoter, the rest of his time was spent buried under stacks of records in the stock rooms at Warp. This was long before the minimum wage came around, when orders were still placed by leaving messages on answering machines.
From pushing records into mail-order bags to pushing bigger and better nights in town, Tom eventually also started getting local Graff talents involved. Current Lex family Kid Acne and Req One (Brighton), among others, would do flyers for the increasingly popular nights. The attention to the aesthetic would follow into the label’s ethos to present day.
“We’d print an A4 flyer and cut it into 4 parts and distribute them in different stores around town, so if you wanted to get the full artwork you had to go around and check if they had the right flyer,” recalls Tom.
At the same time, Warp had continued to gain momentum, moving their offices and their stockroom to London. Starting in a shabby bar in Sheffield, Tom had now started to run the Warp labels nights in the capital, which where now selling out the 1000 capacity with ease without a single name on the flyer.
“We could get messages like Leo DiCaprio or Madonna’s assistant has rung up and want guest list for the night, and we just didn’t care, it didn’t really matter.”
Whether at the venues or in the stockroom, it was apparent that things were beginning to be taken seriously, and it was then that Tom decided it was time to take the next step.
The genesis of Lex records initially came as a proposal to the Warp bosses to help put out a few releases, which was quickly met with a few ground rules: sticking to 12” and not putting out artists that would necessarily be associated with Warp.
After that, all that was left to do was recruit artists for the new imprint. But while many seemed enthusiastic about the opportunity, it quickly became clear that many actually had enough material to put out full albums. One such artist was Boom Bip, whose Seed to Sun had Lex hit the ground running.Boom Bip: Snook Adis
“The album ended up doing really well, we got a bit of money, got a sync on an advert, and that let the label sort of take off from there,” Tom tells us.
A decade later, with the help of A&R man William Skeaping, Lex has transitioned from a label that only pushed avant-garde beat music. One can look at Boom Bip and his transitions from beat music to the eclectic stylings of Neon Neon to his most recent guitar- and synth-infused “Zig Zaj”, or Andy Broder (Fog), Heartbreak and Danger Mouse, who has worked on anything from the more thug like hip-hop to collaborating with artists like Sparklehorse, David Lynch, and recently Italian composer Daniele Luppi on Rome.
Lex signs artists its staff genuinely believe in and are willing to support through the creative process. At least that’s what the label’s (still unofficial) mission statement says.
“It’s really about working with artists over a long period time,” says Tom. “Even if an album doesn’t do well you, have to kind of come back to the drawing board and see what could be done to change things next time, instead of just scratching them off. I guess that’s why we keep to a small roster. It’s quality over quantity at the end of the day.”
It’s all well and good to be supportive regardless of the outcome, but how can that be done in an ever-changing industry?
Without a doubt, as for many labels, the Internet has been the main game changer—for better and for worse—and Lex is no exception to that rule. It may be infinitely harder to develop an artist financially today, but everything tends to happen a lot quicker for artists who take their art seriously.
For Tom at Lex, things still feel like they’re going in the right direction, as ultimately people are getting more intimate to a bigger variety of music, a phenomenon which is in part due to the way labels like Lex choose to put themselves out there.
“We can’t control the way music is consumed and we wouldn’t want to try and control how an artist works, so the only thing to do is to come up with creative solutions that will hopefully get people to be more interested in supporting a project,” he says of the label’s strategy as it enters its second decade of existence.
These ‘creative solutions’ often come in an array of collaborative endeavors, not only with other recording artists, but also by combining them within different creative streams. Lex artists have a good track record embodying this more pluralistic ethos. These collaborative efforts have also taken Lex in another direction, one that was hinted at during the early days and Tom’s creative flyering.
Blending different forms of media has seen signings such Alan Moore (creator or The Watchmen and V for Vendetta amongst others), and world-renowned photographer Mitch Jenkins, make significant marks on the art world, though Tom assures that the music is still the top priority at the label.
A balance between the two seems to be the healthiest road to go down, and we are to expect just that in the future. Future Lex projects involve iconic musician and producer Mike Patton (Faith No More, Bjork, Phantomas, and more), Doseone and Tundai from TV on the Radio, all alongside Turner Prize winning sculptor and polymath Keith Tyson.
Were even told to keep our eyes open for a digital film series featuring collaborations by Alan Moore and illustrator Kristian Hammerstad (SSSR) who recently did those very appealing DOOM x Ghostface posters. Not to forget all new DOOM collabs, which we are told will feature a very strong visual side.
In the mean time, you can look out for some more live nights and some special ‘Lex 10’ releases featuring Jneiro Jarel and DOOM, and a song by Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) on Complex, Lex’s tenth anniversary compilation.
With a decade gone by—from warehouse fires to seeing the Grey Album on Channel 4 news, signing artists like DOOM and selling out the Roundhouse for a famed birthday bash—it’s only fitting to wish Lex the best through the highs and lows of keeping it independent in the decade to come, and hope to be catching up again much sooner than that. Lex fam, we salute you.